Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Are Europe's conservatives now dependent on the far right?

Yesterday’s news that the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had collapsed sent almost immediate shock waves through the world’s financial markets.

Investors, who were already feeling skittish about the first-round victory of French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande on Sunday, found themselves with something much more serious to worry about. The government of the Netherlands, one of the core austerity-pushing states of the Eurozone, couldn’t even pass the tough medicine they helped design for Europe.

Holland and the three other euro-using countries that still have triple A ratings (Germany, Finland and Austria) have pushed for every eurozone country to make massive cuts by the end of the month. But yesterday Rutte was forced to tender his resignation after it became clear he could not get his own parliament to approve the tough medicine he had helped design for all of Europe.

But perhaps more interesting from a political perspective is who it was that precipitated this crisis – the infamous far right leader GeertWilders. Rutte was only able to form his governing coalition in 2010 by relying on the backing of Wilders and his far right Party of Freedom group, which had polled at 15.5% in that year's election. Wilders has been tried in the Netherlands for hate speech against Muslims, and has been banned from entering the UK in the past.

Over the weekend Wilders took fright that his support for the cuts being proposed by Rutte would hurt his populist party with voters. So he announced he and his party were withdrawing support for the coalition, prompting the collapse.

Meanwhile, in France

The unprecedented success of the far right National Front party in France in Sunday’s first round of voting, in which party leader Marine Le Pen scored 18%, threw president Nicolas Sarkozy into a humiliating defeat. Now the French president must find a way to win over the far right voters in the next two weeks, despite the fact that Marine Le Pen has refused to endorse him and has told her supporters to abstain in the final round on 6 May.

But Sarko doesn’t have much more further he can go. He’s spent the entire campaign trying to woo over the far right, by railing against immigration and EU border rules. His entreaties to xenophobia already seemed to smack of desperation yesterday when he vowed at a campaign appearance to dismantle the EU’s passport-free Schengen area of travel. "Europe is not in control of its migration, it's over," he told the crowd, saying French citizens “do not want a ‘sieve Europe’.”

One thing is clear – if Sarkozy is somehow able to make Le Pen change her mind over the next two weeks and endorse him, he will be re-elected to a second term as France’s president. If he cannot win over the far right voters, he will be defeated.

The result on Sunday has made Le Pen the kingmaker in this election, much in the same way that Wilders was the kingmaker in the 2010 Dutch election. Is this the future of the centre-right in Europe?  Can they only remain in power by either partnering with far right leaders or adopting their rhetoric?

The kingmakers

The centre-right now dominates the EU, controlling all member state governments except four. But it is these governments which are now having to enforce the brutal austerity cuts that are being pursued at a European level. This is making them increasingly unpopular with the public, who are turning to populist, extremist parties for easy answers.

The last few years have seen a tremendous rise for the far right in countries where they have previously never been popular, such as in Sweden, Belgium, the UK and the Netherlands. In Finland, a rainbow coalition government of centrist parties had to be formed last year just to keep the hard right populist party True Finns, who polled at 19%, out of government.

As the centre-right loses support because of the austerity regimes they are imposing, it is increasingly looking like they will need support from the far right in order to stay in power – either by allying with them or adopting their message.

But recent experience has shown that uniting with these parties hasn’t yielded great results for Europe’s centre-right. Rutte’s government is the third centre-right/far-right alliance to fall in a year.

Denmark’s conservative government, which had formed a coalition with that country’s far right, were defeated by the Socialists in September. Voters rejected the government of Lars Rasmussen after he was forced to lurch to the right in order to appease the far-right Conservative People’s Party, for instance by illegally re-introducing border controls at the country’s frontiers with Sweden and Germany.

Slovenia’s conservative coalition government collapsed in October in much the same circumstances as in the Netherlands. The main centre-right party was unable to convince its far right populist coalition partner to go along with the austerity cuts and the eurozone rescue. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government, which also relied on far right parties within the coalition, fell in November.

So Europe’s centre-right is really in a bind. Unless they can pick up the votes of the far right, like Sarkozy will try to do over the next two weeks, they may be driven from power. But not only would such a union be distasteful to them, but recent history demonstrates that it is not a viable strategy in the long term.

The alliances benefit the centrists only in the short term, but they will benefit the far right in the long term. The association of centrist parties with far right parties lends the far right credibility and increases their support. Recent experience has shown that the association achieves the opposite for the centre-right – decreasing their support and tarnishing their image.

Even if the centre-right resists the temptation to unite with the extremes, it may be too late. If the centre-right is voted out of power, it could leave far-parties as the strongest opposition to the Socialist governments who will take their place.

That is certainly the calculation Le Pen is making as she refuses to endorse Sarkozy. With Sarko’s UMP party damaged by his defeat, she hopes to scoop up their seats in the French parliamentary elections which will take place in September. She has said she wants to achieve a result at least proportional to the 18% they achieved in Sunday’s first round of elections.

It is not inconceivable that the National Front could emerge as the largest party in the parliament after the Socialists in the fall. That would be a very alarming development indeed.

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